Nassau County lawmakers last week approved a 20-year contract worth more than $1 billion with the local subsidiary of the world’s second-largest water company over the objections of environmentalists and other critics.
The nine-member legislative rules committee voted unanimously Friday for County Executive Ed Mangano’s long-sought contract with United Water, which is owned by French-based utility company Suez Environmental. Some questioned why the full 19-member county legislature didn’t vote on it, others eyed the company’s track record—but the finances of the deal remain unclear.
“United Water has a troubling history of environmental violations, poor service, cost over-runs and low-quality maintenance in communities across the country,” Eric Weltman of the nonprofit Food and Water Watch told the legislature before the vote. A company official called specific cases environmentalists cited “ancient history.”
The Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the county’s fiscal control board, still must vote on the contract, which privatizes management—but not ownership—of the three county’s troubled sewage plants, dozens of pumping stations and more than 3,000 miles of sewers.
Two years ago, Mangano first proposed the plan—which had been rumored to be under consideration even before he was elected to the county’s top job—but NIFA blocked the earlier version. In the time since, he convinced legislative Democrats and some environmentalists to support the deal.
Environmental advocates who expressed support before the vote included leaders of nonprofits such as Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Vision Long Island and Operation SPLASH, which is short for Stop Polluting Littering And Save Harbors.
“Together with United Water, we will implement unprecedented advances in environmental protection, odor control, management efficiencies, plant aesthetics and public information,” Mangano said in a statement two weeks before the vote.
But, even supporters such as Eric Alexander, executive director of Vision Long Island, noted that although they support the move, the projected savings are hard to pin down.
“We’re hearing different savings numbers,” he told the panel while praising the fact that the revised deal is not expected to jeopardize the more than $800 million in Sandy grants to repair storm damage to the Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant.
Mangano “guaranteed” the deal will save taxpayers $233 million over two decades by transferring half of the county’s roughly 300 sewer workers to United Water, with the rest being transferred to vacant county jobs. Nassau County Comptroller George Marargos put the estimated savings at about $240 million.
Henry Boitel, president of the Rockville Centre Democratic club, was among those who have called for the full legislature to vote on the contract—and was the only member of the public to speak before the rules committee ignored those calls.
“I do have a continuing question about the procedure being followed here,” he said, calling it “an unwise precedent.”
Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) responded by having Nassau County Attorney Carnell Foskey reiterate his opinion that contracts are required to go through the rules committee only.
“The thing I think was of up most concern to everyone is: will there be ongoing oversight?” Gonsalves said. “There are a number of ways.”
Still, some remained unconvinced that such a large company would have local taxpayers best interest in mind.
“The question is where the obligation of the corporation lies,” one Great Neck woman told the legislature. “It’s to the stockholders, not the residents.”
NIFA has yet to set a date for its next meeting, when the sewer contract is expected to come up for a final vote before United Water can take over.